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Surovell: Virginia’s hostility to unions is also not good for working people

Labor Day this past Monday was a fitting reminder for us to work harder to not only honor working people in the United States and Virginia but to strengthen our economy and supports for employees.  Virginia has a long way to go. 

Last week Oxfam America released a study that found that Virginia ranked #51 out of 51 as the best state to be an employee – yes, dead last.  This included rankings of #48 in worker protections, #49 in the right to organize, and #51 in wage policies.   This is troubling news.

Virginia has done nothing to raise the minimum wage since 2009, when Congress increased it to $7.25 per hour or about $15,000 per year without time off.  In Northern Virginia, anyone earning $7.25 per hour has to be either supported by someone else or on government assistance. 

Only 13 states, including Virginia, still adhere to the paltry $7.25/hr federal minimum wage. This means 37 states have increased their minimum wage beyond the federal and Virginia rate.

Numerous studies have shown that raising the minimum wage does not adversely affect jobs.  In fact, I have spoken to many constituents who actually commute to Washington, D.C., to earn $14.20 per hour.  If minimum wage in Virginia was higher, they would probably take jobs closer to home.

Some Virginia’s leaders tout our state’s “Best State to Do Business” rankings by CNBC, which rose to back to #4 in 2018 after declining during the McDonnell Administration.  This year, we were beaten by Washington State, ranked #2 with a minimum wage at $11.50, slated to rise to $13.20 by 2020. 

We barely squeaked by Minnesota and Colorado with minimum wages at $10.20 and $9.65.  A higher minimum wage seems to be a very minor part of being a “best state to do business” in the eyes of CNBC. 

Virginia’s hostility to unions is also not good for working people.  A recent Stanford University study found that children whose non-college educated fathers were union members earn 28 percent more over their lifetimes than children of non-union member fathers. 

Additionally, every 10 percent increase in union density correlates with a 4.5 percent increase in children’s income and other studies have found that strong union membership in communities raises wages for all workers – even non-union workers. In other words, unions increase economic mobility and opportunity for everyone. 

A recent Harvard University study found that between 1973 and 2007 the decline of labor unions explains up to one-third of the decline in male wage inequality in America.  As we debate the economic dislocation and labor disruption around the U.S., including areas like, such as Southside and Southwest Virginia, we should explore whether Virginia’s ongoing imbalance in bargaining power plays a role. 

Virginia’s last-place ranking as a state to be an employee was a function of over a dozen factors.  Virginians have no right to accommodations for pregnant workers, no protections for workplace breastfeeding, no provisions for paid family or sick leave, no prohibitions on pay secrecy practices, no collective bargaining for teachers, police officers, firefighters and other public employees, and no provisions for project labor agreements to ensure fair wages on public contracts. 

As a practicing attorney who receives many requests from people who feel they were wrongly fired, I rarely have good news for them.  There is minimal recourse.  Virginia’s workers have few rights – especially compared to other states.

While having a competitive business environment is important for job growth, we also must have an economy that is fair.  Today’s Virginia economy is clearly out of balance with the U.S. if we come in at the bottom, number 51 out of 51.

If we want a Virginia that produces fair wages, good jobs and economic opportunity for everyone, we have a long way to go.  A rising tide lifts all boats and providing basic protections and higher wages for all Virginians will help everyone, especially the working families of our state.

It is an honor to serves as your state senator.  Please email me at scott@scottsurovell.org if you have any feedback. 

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